I'm fascinated with Indian cooking. Obsessed. I love the way cooks build layers of flavor and aroma with onions and other aromatics, a cadre of spices and a long, slow simmer. If you've ever cooked a robust curry in your kitchen, you know that the smell that overtakes your entire home is almost intoxicating.
While working on a project with an Indian chef in Bethesda, Maryland, I got a lesson in spices that not only changed how I cooked Indian food, but changed how I used spices in many of the dishes I make. Sudhir Seth, who owns two restaurants in the D.C. suburbs, showed me the importance of using fresh ground spices and heat control to vary the flavors of your dishes.
Turmeric, for instance, added to a pot of boiling water adds color and a little flavor. When it's added to a pot of hot oil, however, something completely different occurs. It literally blooms, releasing new levels of pungency and flavor because oil can get so much hotter than water and compounds in turmeric are oil soluble. It turns out many spices achieve different flavors based on how they're incorporated in a dish.
When I noticed that many recipes for black beans simply dump all the ingredients in a pot of water to cook for hours, I wondered if some flavor was being left on the table. I decided to build a pot of black beans like an Indian chef would and the results were outstanding. Take a look at the following tips and try applying them to your favorite recipe. It only takes a bit more effort, and the results are more than noticeable.
Use freshly toasted and ground whole spices Toast whole cumin in a dry skillet over medium heat until it darkens in color a touch and becomes fragrant. You don't want to put too much color on the spice, just warm it up a little. Grind the spice with a mortar and pestle or a spice or coffee grinder and note how intense the fragrance is. Cumin has an almost fruity, rich, fragrant smell that is nothing like what you get from a preground spice jar. Now that you have cumin at the height of its flavor potential here's how you get the most out of it.
Cook the onions before adding the spices Many recipes add onions and water right from the start, which robs the dish of those cooked onion flavors we all know taste and smell amazing. (Does anyone really order a cheese steak without the sauteed onions?) Cook the onions in a decent amount of olive oil till they're translucent and most of the water has been removed. That's when you add your spices.
Give the spices and onions plenty of time As the water cooks out of the onions, the temperature of the pan will start to rise. These high temperatures allow new flavors in the cumin and onion to develop. If the pan gets too dry, onions and spice may start to stick. Pour an ounce of water (small shot glass) on the affected area of the pan and keep stirring. Cook the onions and spices for 10 minutes, or until the onions have cooked down considerably, but don't let them burn.
Use dried beans It takes all of seven seconds to dump some beans in a bowl and cover them with water. Canned beans are soft, mushy and lifeless compared with dried and soaked beans, which are cheaper, too. Try it. You won't go back.
Use homemade stock I know. I just made this a lot of work. Store-bought stocks taste terrible, though, and if you don't believe me you should taste them straight from the box. Even the low sodium versions have metallic and unnatural flavors. If you don't have time to make stock, boil a thinly sliced carrot, an onion and a stalk of celery in a quart of water for 20 minutes and strain the results. If you don't have time for that, just use tap water.